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SPRING TRAINING
WHETHER YOU'RE HEADED TO THE GARDEN OR THE GOLF COURSE, IT'S IMPORTANT TO BREAK OUT OF WINTER HIBERNATION WITH CARE

In the spring, Western New Yorkers' fancies turn to thoughts of . . . running, jumping, biking, kicking and digging.

Unfortunately, these can sometimes be followed by aches, crutches, ice packs and painkillers.

But there are ways to avoid the traditional spring sling.

"This is the time of year when we start getting all the people saying, 'I broke my leg,' 'I broke my wrist,' 'I sprained my ankle,' 'I tore my shoulder,' 'I thought I was in good shape,' " said Sandra Diamond, a physical therapist with Catholic Health System's AthletiCare department of Kenmore Mercy Hospital.

The key is to prepare for your warm-weather exertion, whether it's playing 18 holes or double-digging the garden.

"We see a lot of people who are not very active during the colder months, but once the weather starts getting nice, they decide to start a sport or recreation activity," said James R. Velasquez, coordinator of Sports Medicine Outreach at Buffalo Spine and Sports Institute in Amherst.

"When you swing a baseball bat or a golf club, it's a very explosive type of movement," Velasquez said. "They get off the couch and they want to hit the golf ball or baseball a mile, and what they neglect to take into consideration is that their bodies might not be prepared to withstand the stresses and the demands of those activities."

The result, especially with people 30 and over, is injuries to the back, hips, knees, elbows and shoulders, local experts say. And you don't have to be running or playing basketball or softball to get hurt. Plenty of unprepared people suffer injuries from golf, gardening, recreational bicycling and walking, and even energetic spring cleaning.

"You need to get in shape for the sport or activity, to reduce your risk of injury," Diamond said. "The weekend warrior has convinced her- or himself that they're in good enough shape -- they exercised three years ago, or they used to play softball."

Ready -- or not?

Here's a surprise: Even people who spent the winter faithfully working out in a gym may find themselves unprepared for the demands of a particular sport, says Bob Gosch, a PGA Apprentice pro at Batistoni Golf Center on Main Street in Clarence.

"The type of exercise they have been doing over the winter, though probably good for heart and physique and for losing weight, probably hasn't done much to improve their function for most sports," said Gosch.

Velasquez said that seated exercises like leg extensions or bicep curls "are great -- we don't want to send the message that exercise is bad -- but in terms of injury prevention and athletic-performance enhancement, they are two different ends of the spectrum."

Most gym workouts, on bicycles, stair-climbers, treadmills and elliptical steppers, train the muscles to move in a straight line, Gosch said.

"When you're seated, you cannot improve your rotary motion; you don't address balance, stability or flexibility, which are all critical for sports that are done on your feet -- golf, tennis, baseball and softball."

In a gym, Gosch said, "The way you can get away from that is to explore some exercise-class motions, where you try to move laterally from side to side and introduce some rotary movements."

But the best way to get in shape for a specific sport or activity is to educate yourself about what the body does to perform well -- and then work on the specific strengths and flexibility you'll need.

"I started in golf in 1995 off a bodybuilding career, in which I had built a strong, seemingly athletic physique," Gosch said. "But the muscles that I needed to use (to succeed at golf) were all dormant, and you cannot train them to function simply by doing the sport. You can't go to the range and hit enough golf balls to make those muscles strong and functional, unless you hit thousands and thousands of balls, and that's even assuming you are swinging correctly."

Diamond said, "It's a mistake to think that the sport itself will get you in shape, and that's what the weekend warrior thinks. You need to get in shape for the sport, to reduce your risk of injury. You should learn a few stretches that are specific to your sport or your activity to reduce your risk of injury and improve your performance."

The key, said Velasquez, is to find exercises that are "functional" -- that "mimic some of the activities they plan to do."

Anyone starting any sport or strenuous activity should see a doctor for a routine physical, and, "Ask your physician for a referral for physical therapy to get an evaluation," said Diamond. "If you're going to start gardening, you want stretches for your back and legs, for example."

In his lessons (which cost around $65 each, or five sessions for $250), Gosch assesses the golf student's flexibility and mobility and then teaches them stretches and conditioning exercises, which, "if they are done correctly and regularly, will improve the golf swing," he said. "I address their physical needs at the same time I'm teaching them the concept of swinging the club correctly."

Buffalo Spine and Sports Institute offers workshops for athletes, said Velasquez, including an ongoing one called "Lifting for Golf," which is "designed to get people ready to swing a golf club to minimize injury and make them better golfers, too." Eight sessions spread over a month cost $150.

Hourlong sessions to set up an injury-prevention and performance-enhancement program for any sport or activity cost $40 each, Velasquez said.

Allentown resident Andy Sachs, who was spotted among the early birds playing tennis in Delaware Park a week ago, said he stays in shape for tennis over the winter by "doing some off-court work on balance, coordination, weight-training.

"I try to do as little as possible," he said, laughing. "But it prevents any problems that might arise." Sachs is the assistant men's tennis coach at the University at Buffalo, where he is an assistant professor in the department of communication.

Sachs said he plays tennis late into the autumn and starts as early as possible.

"My friend and I had gotten out about a week and half ago, with snow on the court. We put up our own net," he said.

Speaking of snow, Gosch uses a familiar metaphor for weather-weary people who want to dive into an outdoor activity without conditioning the needed muscles first.

"It's like trying to take snow off your driveway with a lawn mower," he says. "You'll throw a lot of snow around, but you won't get the same outcome as if you were using a snowblower. You're using the wrong machine."

e-mail: aneville@buffnews.com